In early May 2011, Australia’s Defense Minister Stephen Smith and Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson released the final report of a review of the future management and use of the Woomera prohibited area in South Australia. Woomera has been a prohibited area since 1947, when it was established as a long-range weapons testing facility by the United Kingdom and Australia. Its size (127,000 km2), remote location and quiet electromagnetic environment have made it an ideal test and evaluation site for military weapons.
The southeast corner of the Woomera hosts the same geological province as the adjacent Olympic Dam mine (the world’s largest uranium deposit) and has the potential be one of the most prospective minerals-development areas in Australia. The ministers said the government has endorsed a proposed new management framework for the Woomera that will allow greater access to the area by the resources and energy sectors. “The Woomera prohibited area has great economic potential, with estimates that more than $35 billion of developments, including iron ore, gold and uranium projects, would be possible over the next decade,” Ferguson said.
Under the new arrangements, Australia’s Department of Defense will remain the primary user of the Woomera area. The area will be divided into Green, Amber and Red zones, each offering different levels of access or timeshare to non-Defense users. The detailed financial, legislative and regulatory arrangements for the new management framework will be developed by a joint Commonwealth/South Australian government coordination office, working in consultation with industry. A six-month moratorium on all but the most advanced applications for access to the Woomera will see the development of necessary protocols.
Mining industry sources greeted the government announcement with cautious optimism. Jason Kuchel, chief executive of the South Australian Chamber of Mines & Energy, said Chamber members generally welcomed the report and were pleased the government had accepted the need for adjustments to the former regulations prohibiting much of the highly prospective land to minerals exploration and/or mining.
Simon Bennison, chief executive of the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies (AMEC), said AMEC supports the federal government’s coexistence model for mining and Defense activities in the Woomera prohibited area, “pending further detail. The coexistence model, if administered correctly, will deliver much needed clarity and certainty for business investment and decision making in South Australia.
“As acknowledged by South Australian Premier Mike Rann, the mineral potential of the Woomera is significant,” said Bennison. “The federal government’s decision to unlock this area for mineral exploration and the commitment of the South Australian government to undertake a major geological survey is congratulated. Government must continue to consult the mining industry while details of the new arrangements emerge. AMEC now asks government for membership on the Woomera prohibited area reference group to ensure explorers and miners have a unified voice in this process.”